#ThunderUp: Jumping on O-K-C bandwagon and exploring religion ghosts on sports page

#ThunderUp: Jumping on O-K-C bandwagon and exploring religion ghosts on sports page

I'm not a huge basketball fan. Baseball is my sport.

But I live in Oklahoma City, and my sons, Brady and Keaton, are Thunder fanatics. The team's surprisingly strong playoff run against historic powerhouses San Antonio and Golden State has the Thunder one win from the NBA Finals. 

With Loud City — OKC's earsplitting fandom — in a frenzy, I've jumped on the bandwagon. 

Thunder up,  y'all!

If you're a regular GetReligion reader, you already know there's a Godbeat angle with the Warriors — the Thunder's Western Conference finals opponent and the team that won an NBA-record 73 games this season.

Think Stephen Curry, the first unanimous NBA MVP.

But what about Oklahoma City? Any potential religion angles here? Ya think?

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Transgender wars: Associated Press shows surprising fairness -- considering

Transgender wars: Associated Press shows surprising fairness -- considering

The states struck back this week, with 11 joining in a lawsuit against the Obama administration's directive to open public school bathrooms to transgender students. But in a surprise, some mainstream media aren’t sliding into the usual cheerleader mode. The Associated Press, for one, is actually producing (gasp) fair coverage.

Let's look closer.

AP starts with the fact that, rather than enlightened North versus backward South, the suit includes states far outside Dixie:  

The lawsuit announced Wednesday includes Oklahoma, Alabama, Wisconsin, West Virginia, Tennessee, Maine, Arizona, Louisiana, Utah and Georgia. It asks a North Texas federal court to declare the directive unlawful in what ranks among the most coordinated and visible legal challenges by states over the socially divisive issue of bathroom rights for transgender persons.
The Obama administration has "conspired to turn workplace and educational settings across the country into laboratories for a massive social experiment, flouting the democratic process, and running roughshod over commonsense policies protecting children and basic privacy rights," the lawsuit reads.

Pretty forceful language, and livelier than many news articles. They typically quote a liberal or two live, rendering a nice, flowing comment -- then match it with a stiff-sounding posture from a conservative website.

AP gives valuable background in pinpointing the origins of the federal directive: a duel of lawsuits between the U.S. Justice Department and North Carolina over that state's laws requiring transgender people to use public bathrooms of their biological sex, rather than the one they identify with. When several states band together in court, it's easy to forget how they got there.

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The double whammy facing Baylor (with good cause) in the sexual-assault scandal

The double whammy facing Baylor (with good cause) in the sexual-assault scandal

As you would expect, I heard from quite a few people this week about the events unfolding at Baylor University, where I did my undergraduate degree in journalism and American history and a master's in church-state studies back in the 1970s.

Baylor is one of those subjects that I know too much about and the emotions are quite complex. My family's ties to the school are deep and I am well aware of the debt that I owe many Baylor people -- my journalism mentor David McHam, historian (and political gadfly) Ralph Lynn and the late choirmaster and composer Robert H. Young head that list.

Then again, the Baylor administration (camped on the "moderate" side of Baptist life at the time) turned the journalism program upside down midway through my undergraduate years after efforts to control the coverage of controversial subjects such as, you got it, sexual assaults on or near campus. I was one of a dozen or so student journalists caught up in that. When I left, I pretty much avoided coming back to the campus for several decades.

So when Michelle Boorstein called from The Washington Post -- "The Ken Starr-Baylor story shows how religious schools struggle to deal with sex assault" -- I am afraid that my comments were rather dense and complex. She was very patient and professional as we tried to figure out the heart of what I was trying to say. She ended up with this:

For such religious schools, the question is how to balance the country’s encouragement of sexual assault victims to come forward with campus rules that restrict sexual behavior and, as a result, often inhibit open discussion. Baylor’s sexual conduct policy says it expects students to express sexual intimacy “in the context of marital fidelity.”
“This raises questions about whether serious religious universities can take part in sports at the highest levels,” said Terry Mattingly, a columnist who is part of a prominent family of Baylor graduates and who founded a journalism center at the Council for Christian Colleges and University. “It could make it harder to talk about it.”

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Will the waning Barack Obama administration rewrite religious hiring rules?

Will the waning Barack Obama administration rewrite religious hiring rules?

Church-and-state disputes are a hot beat and it's getting hotter all the time.

We have religious objections over the government’s transgender bid to control school toilets and locker rooms nationwide, the Supreme Court’s bounce back of the Little Sisters’ “Obamacare” contraception case, states’ debates over whether merchants can decline gay wedding services on religious grounds, and much else.

Media coverage to date shows little interest in how church-state policy might be affected by a President Clinton, or a President Trump, or the jurists on Donald Trump’s recent Supreme Court list, or a Justice Merrick Garland. Will this be raised at a big June 9-11 “religious right” confab in D.C.? Speakers will include Trump and former challengers Cruz, Fiorina, Huckabee, Kasich, Paul, and Rubio, plus House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Meanwhile, interest groups are ardently lobbying the Obama Administration to change religious hiring policies during its waning days. At issue is application of the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) under the 2007 “World Vision memorandum” (click for .pdf) from the Bush Administration’s Department of Justice.

World Vision, a major evangelical organization, had landed a $1.5 million grant to provide mentoring for at-risk youths. The memo ruled that it’s legal for such religious agencies fulfilling service programs through  federal grants to consider religious faith in their hiring. The Obama White House has thus far resisted pressure to abolish that policy, most recently in a Feb. 22 letter from ranking Democrats in the U.S. House.

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Floods of Muslim converts to Christianity? The Daily Beast scratches the surface

Floods of Muslim converts to Christianity? The Daily Beast scratches the surface

It’s not the first article out there about Muslim immigrants to German converting to Christianity but it’s almost certainly the most recent. But the Daily Beast, in reporting on the trend, predictably managed to link this trend to the U.S. presidential elections.

Which was unfortunate, in that the story of thousands of Muslims jettisoning their faith to become Christian is a continuing saga and a decent story in its own right.

Lots of outlets, ranging from the Daily Mail and the Times of Israel to Catholic World Report and NPR (click here for previous GetReligion posts) have reported on Muslims converting by the thousands, especially those from countries like Iran and Afghanistan and Pakistan where conversions from Islam into another religion means an automatic death sentence. This is the first time these folks have been able to choose their own religion or no religion.

We’re talking statistics like 600 Persian converts descending on one church in Hamburg. So, the Daily Beast has waded in with the inevitable political angle:

AMSTERDAM -- Hundreds of Pakistanis and Afghans have been lining up at a local swimming pool in Hamburg, Germany, to be baptized as Christians. In the Netherlands and Denmark, as well, many are converting from Islam to Christianity, and the trend appears to be growing. Indeed, converts are filling up some European churches largely forsaken by their old Christian flocks.
All of which raises a question, not least, for the United States: If American presidential candidate Donald Trump gets elected and bars Muslims from entering the country, as he says he will, would the ban apply to Christians who used to be Muslims? How would one judge the quality of their faith?

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To hell with it: No, seriously, there's a movement to eliminate doctrine of eternal torment

To hell with it: No, seriously, there's a movement to eliminate doctrine of eternal torment

What the ... ?

In case you haven't heard, there's a campaign to eliminate hell.

No, it's not a platform of Donald Trump. In fact, I can't outright dismiss the possibility that Trump might be Satan. (I kid. I kid.)

But seriously, National Geographic reports on changing evangelical attitudes toward hell in a recent feature story.

I love the lede.

See is this opening doesn't grab your attention:

Hell isn’t as popular as it used to be.  
Over the last 20 years, the number of Americans who believe in the fiery down under has dropped from 71 percent to 58 percent. Heaven, by contrast, fares much better and, among Christians, remains an almost universally accepted concept.  
Underlying these statistics is a conundrum that continues to tug at the conscience of some Christians, who find it difficult to reconcile the existence of a just, loving God with a doctrine that dooms billions of people to eternal punishment.  
"Everlasting torment is intolerable from a moral point of view because it makes God into a bloodthirsty monster who maintains an everlasting Auschwitz for victims whom he does not even allow to die," wrote the late Clark Pinnock, an influential evangelical theologian.   
While religious philosophers have argued over the true nature of hell since the earliest days of Christianity, the debate has become especially pronounced in recent decades among the millions of Americans who identify themselves as evangelicals. The once taboo topic is being openly discussed as well-regarded scholars publish articles and best-selling books that rely on careful readings of Scripture to challenge traditional views.   

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Dollars, demograpic decline and the gospel (or Gospel) of new Washington Cathedral dean

Dollars, demograpic decline and the gospel (or Gospel) of new Washington Cathedral dean

Talk about candor. From the get-go, the recent Washington Post story about the selection of a new dean at Washington National Cathedral is very upfront about the fact that this highly visible Episcopal Church landmark faces a crisis of dollars and demographics. And then there was that earthquake thing, literally.

Consider the headline, for example: "Needing to raise ten of millions, Washington National Cathedral picks a fundraiser for its new dean."

Now, I realize that college and university presidents are frequently hailed as great fundraisers. However, I don't know of many pastors, preachers or priests who have welcomed that label. In this case the Rev. Randy Hollerith -- for some reason the Post editors drop "the Rev." or even "Father" on the first reference -- makes it clear that this isn't his label of choice, either.

There is also the question of whether he plans, as was the norm with the Hollywood-shaped previous dean, Gary Hall (once again, now clerical title on first reference), to use hot-button cultural and theological issues to push the cathedral into the headlines.

Hollerith says he won’t enter the position with plans to focus on specific social justice issues, a contrast to Hall, who was on the national news within a few months after coming in August 2012 by announcing that he’d open the cathedral to same-sex weddings.
“I’m not an issue-driven person. I’m a gospel-driven person,” he said. “Of course, the gospel at times is prophetic and has things to say to the world. But I don’t approach things from the point of view of hot-button issues, so to speak.”
That doesn’t mean he doesn’t share with Hall and other recent deans a focus on one topic in particular: race. The Episcopal Church -- a small Protestant denomination that until recent decades represented the faith of the American elite -- has become less diverse racially in the past few decades, Hall said. ...

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Pope and imam dial back talks about Christian concerns, with assist from some journalists

Pope and imam dial back talks about Christian concerns, with assist from some journalists

The leader of a billion-plus Catholics met with a leader of a billion-plus Muslims, and media gave it appropriately thorough coverage.

Except for one matter: persecution of Christians in Muslim lands.

Pope Francis himself was oddly timid on the point. But that doesn't mean mainstream media had to downplay it also -- especially when they cover plenty of such incidents.

Typical was the Associated Press report:

Pope Francis on Monday embraced the grand imam of Al-Azhar, the prestigious Sunni Muslim center of learning, reopening an important channel for Catholic-Muslim dialogue after a five-year lull and at a time of increased Islamic extremist attacks on Christians.
As Sheik Ahmed el-Tayyib arrived for his audience in the Apostolic Palace, Francis said that the fact that they were meeting at all was significant.
"The meeting is the message," Francis told the imam.

Following this press release-style lede, though, AP says the two leaders discussed "the plight of Christians 'in the context of conflicts and tensions in the Mideast and their protection,' the statement said." It adds that Al-Azhar broke off talks alks with the Vatican a decade ago, after Pope Benedict XVI quoted a Byzantine emperor saying that some Muhammad's teachings were "evil and inhuman."

The article also retells some bloody specifics:

Benedict had demanded greater protection for Christians in Egypt after a New Year's bombing on a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria killed 21 people. Since then, Islamic attacks on Christians in the region have only increased, but the Vatican and Al-Azhar nevertheless sought to rekindle ties, with a Vatican delegation visiting Cairo in February and extending the invitation for el-Tayyib to visit.

But if any Mideastern Christian leaders had opinions on the meeting -- and it's hard to imagine they wouldn't -- AP wasn't interested.

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Caps, gowns and prison whites: Meet Texas' newest seminary-trained pastors

Caps, gowns and prison whites: Meet Texas' newest seminary-trained pastors

Another major Texas newspaper has produced an excellent feature on state-sanctioned minister training inside the Lone Star State's toughest lockups.

Back in March, I (mostly) praised the Houston Chronicle for such a story and shared some reflections of my own experience writing about religion and prisons.

I did, however, wonder why the Chronicle didn't make clear the role of the state and the use of any taxpayer money.

That background leads to the Dallas Morning News front-page Sunday feature that ran under the banner headline "Prophets of hope."

The Morning News story is colorful, nicely written and — if you are a person of Christian faith, as I am — inspiring:

ROSHARON — For a couple of hours, the maximum-security prison felt like a real church.
Daylight illuminated stained-glass windows as voices in spiritual rejoicing sent up hymn after celebratory hymn honoring 33 new pastors in black graduation caps and gowns in the chapel’s sanctuary.
Under a towering white cross, there were sermons, handshakes, hugs and thunderous applause. Joyful pride spilled down mothers’ cheeks as the graduates filed down the aisle out of the room, clutching diplomas and grinning ear to ear.
Beneath those caps and gowns were the prison whites of men whose criminal transgressions landed them behind bars for decades. Outside the chapel walls were the concertina wire and pickets manned by armed guards at the Darrington Unit, one of the toughest prisons in Texas.
The inmates were the second graduating class from the Texas Department of Criminal Justice’s seminary program. On a recent Monday afternoon, after four years of studies, the men received bachelor’s degrees in biblical studies from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Now, they will be divided into teams and assigned to one of Texas’ 109 prison units, where they will minister to other inmates. Their aim: to help those who will soon be released find reconciliation and rehabilitation through faith.
“I want to commission you today to be prophets of hope,” seminary President Paige Patterson told the men, most of whom are serving sentences of at least 25 years.

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